Homophobic reflex: A smart Alec tale

It's true what they say. Alec Baldwin's problem is not homophia, it's anger management. Once pissed off, the man will say what he said. As noted, it has to do with his generational upbringing. I know. I have it. And mine is possibly worse, spiked with Latin machismo.

When I worked at the Village Voice, where many staffers were gay, I told myself, never, never lose your temper -- and at the Voice, as volatile as it was fun, there was always reason. Because I knew the first words out of my mouth would be the same as Alec's.

On the streets of New York, also as volatile as they were fun, it would happen. I'd be walking with my girlfriend and some guy would say something like, nice ass (it was). Without thinking, I would respond, your mother's ass is nice, faggot. Not only did I not think of the homophobic content of my response, but, more urgently, I did not think that my provocation might get my own not-so-nice ass kicked. It was a Pavlovian response honed in my Latin American childhood.

In Spanish it's worse. Down in Miami, where my native language is lingua franca, I got on a stupid traffic altercation in a parking lot. My antagonist cussed me out, adding the m-word. Maricón. When I was out of the car I told the guy, in Spanish, you're the maricón. And I took a swing at him. He called the cops and claimed I'd hit him. Still stupidly riled, I told them that no, I'd missed, but I wished I'd hit him. They told me that they could arrest me for assault.

Why would a homophobic epithet drive an otherwise mild-mannered reporter for The Daily Planet to rage? Why in a rage would this Latino Clark Kent spit out a homophobic epithet?

Programmed for it by culture at an early age. But what's behind it? This is my reasoning. In the culture of machismo -- which we of Spanish surnames share with men around the world -- the worst thing a man can be called is homosexual. The rationale is that if one is gay, one is not a man, the latter being defined by heterosexual function along with a number of gestures and actions that, under scrutiny, seem arbitrary. And if one is not a man one is . . . nothing. It's an ontological issue. To be nothing, the great cosmic fear. Thus, to call an antagonist a faggot or maricón is to say, you do not exist.

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps. Certainly there's no thinking involved when one insults an opponent. But utterances in extreme emotional states don't involve thought. Are we thinking of intercourse everytime we utter fuck? Of excrement when we say shit? Among some Latin Americans, my own countrymen included, a common expletive is the old Spanish word for female genitalia. Curiously, most of us don't even know that's what it means. We just know it's bad and that's enough.

Am I thinking my antagonist is gay when I insult him that way? I'm not thinking anything except, I'd like to destroy you. Which begs the question: it's time to think. Homophobia is not good, but mostly it's stupid. Of course a gay man is a man. Why the hating? Fears imprinted by culture, which like racism, misogyny and a vareity of phobias reveal their stupidity under any scrutiny.

Will we ever get deprogrammed or do we just have to wait until Alec Baldwin's generation -- and mine -- die? I'd like to think that stupidy dies along the way, except that the replacement of "cock-sucking faggot" with "that's so gay" doesn't give me hope. Are these fears ensconced so deep in the human psyche that like, say, the fear of death, they just won't go away?

The brouhaha over Baldwin's outburst may seem like politically correct overreacting. But it does raise a dialogue about language and hatred and what is no longer acceptable civilized behavior. Maybe the best one can hope for is better manners. And maybe better attitudes will fall in step behind.